Federal mine safety officials yesterday unveiled a new mine escape system in which trapped miners would travel through underground concrete pipes to reach the surface.
As surface fans blow in breathable air, battery-powered personnel carriers on tracks inside the pipes would convey the miners to safety. And because the pipes are buried, officials say communications and tracking systems between miners and rescuers should stay intact.
The system "would unquestionably offer the best possible option to miners suddenly faced with an underground fire or explosion emergency," according to a release from the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Few outside MSHA had seen the escape system before yesterday, and questions were raised by some about how it would be installed and maintained.
"Anything that truly advances mine safety and enhances miners' ability to get out of a mine in the event of an incident, we're generally going to be in favor of," said Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America. "But we need to find out a whole lot more about this before we're willing to endorse it.
"It just raises a whole host of questions in our mind. How do you gain entry to it? What happens if someone in front of you gets stuck or is unable to continue moving? What do you do then?"
Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association industry group, said they were "aware only of the broad outlines of the proposal and have serious questions about the durability in underground conditions, and the installation" of the escape system.
A team headed by Mark Skiles, director of MSHA's technical support division, demonstrated the system at the agency's Approval and Certification Center in Triadelphia, W.Va., with West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin among those in attendance.
MSHA said the escape system does not require special training to use but acknowledged that the cost of installing the escape pipes and making changes to existing regulations would "need to be evaluated."
Rescuing trapped miners has become an urgent issue since the January 2006 explosion at West Virginia's Sago Mine trapped 12 miners for more than 40 hours. Only one of the miners survived.
In August, six miners were trapped at the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah. Efforts to find those miners ended after three rescuers were killed, prompting officials to discontinue the search because of dangerous conditions.
Steve Twedt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1963.